Great Cake — Honest, Abe

The recipe card that started it all

Honestly, I don’t know how it happens, but wherever I go, I inevitably end up in conversation about food with a chef, baker or artisan food maker. How else to explain a cake recipe discussion at Ford’s Theatre in Washington, D.C.?

Browsing in the gift shop after the museum tour (also always on the lookout for great cheesy souvenirs, of which D.C. offers an abundance. Although I do wonder at the appropriateness of selling shot glasses at Ford’s Theatre. . . ) I came across a beautifully designed note card bearing the recipe for Lincoln’s Favorite White Cake. Suddenly, a voice behind me said, “It’s a great cake, I can tell you.” Turns out that the friendly store manager, Paul, had not only tried the recipe, but says he’d suggested the idea of printing it on a card, apron and kitchen towel as an alternative to more typical gift shop merch. The recipe comes from a Lincoln White House-era cookbook. Paul had dutifully made the cake and brought it in for staff to sample. Although he demurred at the idea that it be sold at the concession stand as a more fitting choice than M&Ms. “I’d have to be one to make them all, then,” he sighed.

It goes without saying that I had to get one of the note cards and try it. Abe’s favorite is a white cake with almonds, lightened with beaten egg whites and baked in an angel-food pan, then covered with a boiled sugar icing. It is, true to Paul’s word, a delicious cake, although I think it might work better in a bundt pan. And I understand his decision to use a cream cheese frosting for his version. The icing recipe takes a practiced hand to determine exactly when the sugar has reached the right stage, described as “spins a thread about five inches long.” Historical recipes are notoriously vague, so I expected it might be a challenge, but decided to try it as written. The first attempt took the sugar too far and it turned into a very hard caramel. Pulled out the candy thermometer for the second try, taking it to a soft ball stage to produce an icing that worked, but wasn’t as fluffy as I imagined. In truth, the cake works well without any frosting at all and updated versions leave it out. A sprinkling of powdered sugar could dress it up enough.

It’s said that the recipe was a Todd family favorite and that Mary Todd Lincoln baked it for her future husband when they were courting, and after she became First Lady. True, things were different in the 1860’s White House, but somehow I imagine Mrs. Lincoln leaving this one to the staff.